DEWITT – It’s been three years since the DeWitt Panthers encored a commanding regular-season performance with a noteworthy postseason appearance.
Since reaching the Division 3 state title game in 2013, the Panthers, who are a combined 28-4 since that trip to Ford Field, have failed to capture a district championship the past two seasons.
DeWitt’s hoping the third time is a charm.
The Panthers (9-1) opened their quest for a lengthy postseason stay with a 21-7 home victory over East Lansing Friday night in the opening round of the Division 3 district tournament.
“We are looking into every game that we’re playing that week, and not looking forward like we would, maybe, in a regular-season game,” senior JD Ross said. “We’re not doing that at all this season. We’re looking forward to the next game, the next play and the next drive.”
No. 6-ranked DeWitt, after forcing an East Lansing punt to start the game, got on the scoreboard after a 13-play, 82-yard drive was capped with a 1-yard touchdown run by Ross. Panther sophomore tailback David Locher ran the ball seven times for 35 yards on his team’s opening offensive possession.
The Trojans (6-4) combated their seven-point deficit on the very next play from scrimmage when senior quarterback Hunter Helmic connected with junior receiver Blake Underwood for an 80-yard touchdown reception.
The first 24 minutes were plagued with penalties, most notably on East Lansing’s third offensive possession. After the ball soared over the punter’s head on fourth and 15, the Panthers were called for roughing the kicker, giving the Trojans an automatic first down.
Later in the drive, Helmic’s pass on third and 9 was incomplete, but DeWitt was whistled for defensive holding. The Trojans would eventually punt on the drive after facing a fourth-and-40 situation due to an unsportsmanlike conduct call.
“On offense, we didn’t run the ball as well as we wanted to,” Underwood said. “We worked hard at practice, and we had a mindset to come in and dominate on defense. We did a successful job at that, but we struggled in some areas.”
And after 36 minutes of durable defense from both programs, it was the Panthers who put the scoring drought to an end early in the fourth quarter. DeWitt was able to put together another substantial drive that was capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Will Nagel to receiver Alan Smith. Ross’ 38-yard rush on the drive’s fourth play put the wheels in motion for his offense.
The Panthers closed the curtain on their next possession by putting together an eight-play, 90-yard drive that was finished with a 3-yard touchdown run by Locher. Junior tailback Nicholas Krause had 30 yards rushing on the drive.
The Trojans’ defense was able to hold DeWitt to its lowest scoring performance of the season. But, on the other hand, East Lansing’s seven points was tied for its lowest total offensive output of the year, as well.
“We had some good drives going, and we just couldn’t convert,” said Smith, whose team averaged just north of 42 points per game during the regular season. “We were moving the ball, so we knew eventually was going to come together and we were going to get in the end zone.
“It was really a credit to the offensive line. They really helped push us down the field for two drives in a row.”
The Panthers will face CAAC Red rival Mason next week for the district title.
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.